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NIH, Government Back at Work, but Deal Creates New Budget Deadline

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Scientists and administrators at the National Institutes of Health and other federal science funding agencies returned to work yesterday after Congress agreed to end a government shutdown, but the near future holds uncertainties for US science funding.

Although the government and NIH are running again, the NIH Clinical Center is taking patients, study sections will restart, and reviews will continue, the budget at NIH will be kept flat for now, with sequestration cuts included. The agreement forged this week to end the shutdown is also only for three months.

The deal that Congress reached to end the two-and-a-half week government shutdown was not a budget for Fiscal Year 2014, but an agreement to set up a budget conference committee tasked with producing a budget by sometime in December.

If the conference committee, chaired by Sen. Patty Murray (D – Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R – Wis.), fails to reach a budget deal, then another government shutdown deadline looms in mid-January.

This committee may focus solely on ironing out the details of a FY 2014 budget, but the recent history of Congress over the last couple of years suggests that is unlikely, Jennifer Zeitzer, legislative director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, told GenomeWeb Daily News yesterday.

The most recent squabble that led to the shutdown, and nearly to a federal default on government debts, involves many issues beyond discretionary spending, the section of the budget that funds agencies like NIH.

It is likely that once again funding for biomedical research at NIH, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies, will be a bystander to a much larger battle over federal budget deficits and government spending — the largest share of which goes to non-discretionary spending like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid — and over tax policy.

For those interested in federal biomedical research funding, what will be critical to watch for is whether this committee can agree on a total funding cap number for discretionary spending, and whether it leaves the sequestration in place.

Zeitzer pointed out that the sequestration will probably be a point of contention between the Democrats and Republicans on the committee, because when the Senate and House passed their respective funding caps for discretionary spending, the Senate version scrapped the sequester, while the House kept it in effect.

The difference between the two was substantial, around $90 billion, Zeitzer said.

The Senate funding cap plan included enough space for the NIH to receive an increase in FY 2014 of $307 million over FY 2013, for a total of $30.9 billion. The House committee that funds the Department of Health and Human Services did not bring up a vote on a bill for 2014 last year.

Zeitzer suggested that it is possible that the House committee members found that the sequestration cuts were so deep that even those who supported them in general were hesitant to vote on the record for such cuts at the agency level. For whatever reason, the House committee that funds HHS cancelled its mark-up in August and never passed a budget for those agencies.

What Zeitzer and others who track biomedical research funding will watch now is whether the lawmakers on this committee try to wrestle with that $90 billion difference on discretionary spending, or if they focus on reaching a so-called "grand bargain" that achieves deficit reduction through tax reform, cuts, or changes to entitlement programs, sequestration, or other means.

The committee members will have little freedom to snip away at that $90 billion disparity, or to meet in the middle, Zeitzer explained, because the Budget Control Act that set up the sequestration created it to be an all-or-nothing solution.

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